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JUDGE QUESTIONS LAWYERS ON SUITS OVER LEGALITY OF COUNTY BUDGET

Five lawyers spent another morning in State Supreme Court on Wednesday, trying to clarify the major legal issues regarding the passage of Erie County's budget.

Justice John P. Lane is expected to rule soon on the legality of the eleventh-hour budget that was narrowly adopted by the County Legislature on Dec. 8.

His office said this morning that the ruling was not expected today.

The judge questioned lawyers for an hour and a half Wednesday as he worked to discern the main issues. Three separate lawsuits have been filed challenging the budget process.

Two come from private citizens, while one is a suit jointly filed by County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples, Republican County Legislator Denise E. Marshall and County Election Commissioners Ralph M. Mohr and Laurence F. Adamczyk.

After additional documents and oral arguments were presented to the judge, many of the lawsuits appear to share common concerns on which Lane must rule.

Among the major points debated Wednesday:

Was it legal or appropriate for the Legislature to adopt the county's last-minute budget amendments as a single package, instead of approving each change to the budget individually?

Is it allowable for the budget to contain estimated revenues from fees, when those fees were not properly adopted by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature?

Does the county executive have the right to revise his budget estimates, even after the budget has been through the Legislature process, when it could result in last-minute changes or increases to the county tax levy?

Could the budget be considered illegal and possibly returned to the Legislature for further deliberation because it is not considered a balanced budget, as required by the County Charter?

On this last point, petitioners assert that the current budget includes more revenue than it should because it contains estimated revenues from unapproved fees and other revenues not offset by expenditures.

Some also contend that the additional, assumed sales tax revenue from the state is too speculative to be considered in the budget.

After hearing oral presentations Wednesday, Lane said lawyers for both sides offered "well-placed arguments and briefs."

He also stated that it's not the role of the courts to tell the county executive or the County Legislature how to do their jobs, but rather to inform them on whether their budget process violates the law.

Last week Lane had said he intended to rule by the end of this week.

His ruling will determine the outcome of the joint suit filed by county officials, as well as a suit filed by Eden resident Chester C. Pawarski.

The suit filed by West Seneca resident Daniel Warren of the Niagara Frontier Chapter of Upstate Citizens for Equality will not be decided until Jan. 10, Lane said.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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